I had an 8:30am train to catch from Hua Lamphong station in Bangkok and had arrived with plenty of time after I had accidentally hailed a cab instead of taking the metro as I had planned. As the other trains pulled in I could see the complete lack of accessibility, these trains must have been forty years old easily. That didn’t bother me too much, it’s fantastic when things are accessible, but when they aren’t you just have to be flexible with you expectations.
The three carriage train pulled in on time and I headed for the carriage number two. As I headed toward the door, one of the stewards came to meet me, helpful as ever which is what I’ve become accustomed to in Thailand. I transferred onto the lower step, dismantled my chair and passed it up to the station guard who was now stood behind me. I climbed the steps and got back in my chair. Thankfully the first section of the train was wide enough to fit my chair through which meant I could go through to where the seats were even though it was a bit of a squeeze. The porter asked to see my ticket, which I promptly handed to them. She pointed at my seat number, 22, then pointed down the train. The seat next to us was 79. The aisle way down the train was too narrow to fit the chair down so I tried my luck at getting a closer seat so I didn’t have to drag myself along the floor for what would have been the best part of 25 metres. They gave me a seat on the second row which was perfect.
Bangkok to Chiang Mai was going to take 12 hours. I decided to take the train as opposed to the hour long flight as I thought seeing more of the country would be interesting. I missed the first half of the day after catching up on sleep from a late one the night before – the Therma-rest folding pillow is a great bit of equipment for sleeping on trains or even in hostels when the pillow is made out of stone. By the time I woke up, the scenery had changed and we were now passing through a mountainous region that was almost jungle like in its appearance. This was getting exciting and I knew that I’d made the right choice by heading north instead of going to the beach resorts in the south.
The new hostel, Mojito Gardens, wasn’t as accessible as I might have hoped but nothing that wasn’t possible with a few transfers and wheelchair skills. Rooms, both private and dorms, were spread out around the central courtyard which seemed like it would be a good place to get a few drinks on a night. My first day here was spent looking around the old town, checking out one of the historic temples and what the street food had to offer. The first temple that I found was painted with bright red and gold, I guessed it was a fairly new development. Over this temple I could see the spire of what looked to be a much older temple. The second temple was much older than the first and closed to tourists, not that this made a difference as the first wasn’t accessible either.
As I was sat enjoying a couple of pints later on in the evening, a boy was running through the bar dropping flyers on each of the tables. I picked it up and saw it was for a Thai boxing event – 7 fights and gambling sounded like it might be worth checking out. The venue wasn’t big, more of a warehouse with a boxing ring in the middle. This was ideal for me as it meant it was completely accessible – except for the toilets, but beggars can’t be choosers.
The evening started with some local music played on a wind instrument, this really set the mood before the fighting began. The fighters came on and the ring lit up, there was a strong smell of wintergreen in the air and the crowd started cheering. Thai boxing is a lot like kick boxing, but most of the fighters were primarily using their fists. I’d paid an extra 200 baht for a VIP ticket which meant ringside seats. The fights were clearly about the sport as opposed to the violent nature some of these sports take on, I was surprised about the level of respect shown by the fighters to each other; maybe this was because the venue seemed to be more of an underground fighting arena and I was expecting something more brutal. One of the strangest fights of the night involved four of the fighters in the ring at once. They all sat in the centre where the referee blindfolded them, they all stood up and started swinging, hoping to hit one of the others. This must’ve been incredibly disorientating for the participants, the referee took a couple of hits and was quick enough with the payback!
I was only going to be in Chiang Mai for a couple of days and wanted to make the most of it. So on my first day, I visited the tour operator to see what I could in the local area. There’s quite a lot on offer, hot air ballooning which seemed a bit risky, elephant farm/safari which I’d done before in Nepal, a shooting range that could have been fun, a tiger enclosure which really didn’t appeal to me – they said that the animals hadn’t been drugged but I imagine a domesticated tiger is a sad thing to see. In the end I chose to go ATV off road quad biking. I got the tour operator to call through and reserve me a place in the morning, she mentioned I was in a chair and that wasn’t a problem. I thought they were using automatics. I thought wrong.
The next day I got picked up and taken about 20KM out of the city, through winding roads that showed off some of the amazing jungle scenery I was introduced to on the train ride. We pulled into an area about the size of two football pitches which was the base for the company. There was a guest house, about 8 quads from what I could, a track to practise on and one very miserable looking caged eagle.
We started the induction to driving the quad bikes and it was clear straight away that these weren’t automatic as I’d originally been told. Their solution to this was to have someone else drive me around, which I was having none of. My solution to the gear changing issue was to duct tape (very useful stuff) a couple of poles to the pedals so I could change gears with my hands. They didn’t like my idea so we settled for when I needed to change gear, I would pick up my foot with my right hand (left hand is on the clutch) and push it down to change gear. I’m not sure if this was safer than my hand control idea, but there you go.
I went round the practise circuit a couple of times to warm up. I’d like to say it all came back naturally but it didn’t. It took a while to get used to but I got the hang of it and after progressing and completing the advanced course, they felt confident enough to take me out into the jungle.
Early morning trips aren’t that popular with tourists (possibly because of drinking the night before) which is why I managed to get a space the day before; this did mean that I was on the excursion alone with the instructors. We set off with a comfortable cruise down the road for about half a mile before taking a right onto the dirt track. The roads were rough as we started to climb to the summit of one of the hills. I was doing my best to concentrate on what was going on in front of me while trying to take in the stunning scenery that all around.
We stopped at a small village that has been home to a group of Chinese immigrants living in the hills for 200 years. Passed some American missionaries doing their best to convert the locals while reading from what appeared to be a phrase book, from the blank expression on the face of the woman they were speaking to I don’t think they were very successful. After doing what I’m sure was customary for people passing through, listening to a sales pitch for cheap purses and buying the kids sweets from the shop, we hit the road again.
Driving through this dense woodland was nothing short of spectacular. Not just for the views, but also for the fact that this kind of exploring is what I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. Admittedly, it was always the Amazon that I thought I’d explore, but this was a fantastic substitute. After about 3 hours of crossing rocky roads, dense woodland and rivers, we headed back to base. This was a brilliant high to end the visit to Thailand on. I’ve only had a very brief introduction to the country but I look forward to my next visit and exploring the places I missed out this time.